THES ECRET OFL IFE
“I was just thinking,” I tell him, laughing, “that here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.”
He was at a New Year’s Eve dance at the River Valley Country Club in Louisville. It was a much classier scene than Conrad was accustomed to, though he did know many of the other boys and girls, the rich boys in brand-new tuxedos, the girls in pale dresses with thin straps. Conrad had his father’s old tux and horrible lumpy dress shoes; he was smaller than the others, abrain , but blending in well enough. His date Linda was dancing with a boy she’d had a crush on since fifth grade, and Conrad was hoping to get drunk.
The coat racks were at the foot of the stairs leading down to the bathrooms. Conrad made his way there and patted down the overcoats, feeling for the happy tumor of a hidden pint. It was easy; the bottles grew as thick as autumn fruit. Conrad drew out a pint of Old Crow and gulped at the strange liquid, vile and volatile stuff that evaporated almost before he could swallow.
With flushed skin, buzzing ears, and the sudden conviction thathe was cool , Conrad fumbled the bottle back into its velvet-collared overcoat. A brief wave of sickness. He made for the men’s room, eyes and mouth streaming, and drank some water from the sink.
The bathroom was empty, all light and white tile. Mirrors, a stack of clean-smelling linen towels by the sinks, and the urinals across the room. “I’m here by the sinks,” thought Conrad, “and it seems impossible that I will ever be over there by the urinals.” He began to walk. “Now I am moving through space, and time is going on, and now . . .” He unzipped and began to piss. “Now, although it seemed inconceivable before, I am on the other side of the room.” His mind felt unbelievably clear. “Last year I never thought I’d be drunk at a dance, yet here I am, just as surely as I’ve crossed this tile floor.”
As he started back toward the dance floor, the wider implications hit him. “I can’t conceive of being in college, but that will come, too, and when it comes it will feel likenow . I will go to college, and marry, and have children, and all the time it will be me doing it, me doing it in some mysteriously movingnow . And then I’ll die. It seems impossible, but someday I will really die.”
Linda wasn’t interested in all this; Linda was a tennis player. She and Conrad had gone steady for almost a year, and now all of a sudden at the New Year’s Eve dance he was interested in the problem of death. Babbling about it on the dance floor, Conrad wore a heavy, glazed expression that made Linda suspicious.
“Are you drunk? You’re acting funny.”
“What difference does it make? What difference does anything make? Oh, beautiful Linda, why don’t you sleep with me before we die.”
“That is just alittle out-of-the-question, Conrad. Maybe you should sit down.”
Instead he dug back into the coat racks. There were some older boys down there now, but, hell, everyone was drinking, why should they care if he took a little?
“Get out of here, Bunger. What are you, a pickpocket or something?” It was Preston, a party-boy with cratered skin and a black burr-haircut. He was sipping from the very same pint that Conrad had sampled earlier.
Conrad attempted a smile. Suddenly he wasn’t cool anymore. “Happy New Year, Preston. Can I have a slug?”
“Christ, and give me syphilis? Get your own!”
It was still only 10:30, and those few gulps of whiskey were wearing off fast. The boys in the cloakroom glared at Conrad. He found his way back upstairs.
Linda was still dancing, laughing and light on her feet. Her partner was Billy Ballhouse, a real snowman. Ballhouse was talking about love, no doubt, love and kissing, dance steps and new clothes. Watching Linda dance, Conrad felt very old. Who was he to badger this gay young thing for sex? With death so near, and the night so young, how could he find a bottle?
The answer came to him as the song ended.Steal some wine from the St. John’s sacristy! He told Linda he’d be back in a few minutes and hurried out into the hall.
There were some younger boys without dates out there, smoking and horsing around. Right now they were having a belching contest, bouncing the gurpy sounds off the oaken walls. One of them, Jim Ardmore, was a pretty good friend of Conrad’s. They belonged to the same high-school fraternity, a club called the Chevalier Literary Society. Some of the Chevalier members were fairly cool—though Conrad himself had been initiated primarily because his big brother Caldwell had been a member before going off to college and the army.
“Hey, Jim,” cried Conrad. “You want to help me steal some wine?”
“How decadent,” said young Ardmore, his mouth twisting. He was skinny, with a heavy shock of dry black hair hanging into his sallow face. “Decadent” was his favorite word, though right now he was using it with a certain irony. “Are we going to rob a liquor store?”
“No, no. Just come with me. We’ll gettwo bottles.”
The other boys cheered, and Ardmore went on outside with Conrad. Conrad’s mother had lent him her new blue Volkswagen. It shook a lot in first gear. They drove along River Road for a while, then up a long hill to St. John’s. It wasn’t far.
Just two years earlier, Conrad’s father had suddenly taken it into his head to be ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. He worked as an assistant at St. John’s, and Conrad was a regular acolyte. Sometimes Conrad would light and extinguish the candles, and sometimes he would be in charge of getting out the bread and wine. As a result, he knew (1) where the locked closet with the communion wine was and (2) where to find the key. The church itself was always unlocked. Conrad’s father felt very strongly about leaving churches unlocked—he made a point of leaving a note saying,“A locked door, an unfaithful act,” on any locked church door he encountered.
Conrad and Ardmore hurried in, got the liquor closet unlocked, and gazed down at a full case of cheap California port. High high-school laughs. They each took a bottle and tumbled back into the VW.
Conrad was a little leery of bringing stolen church wine into the party, so he and Ardmore drove around for an hour, chugging at the stuff. Lights swept past, stores and cars, and the evening began to break into patches. Conrad could hear himself talking, louder and more eloquently than ever before.
“We’re going todie , Jim, can you believe that? It’s really going to stop some day, all of it, and you’re dead then, you know? It’s going to happen to you personally just like when I was at the dance and walking across the bathroom, how at the sink I thought I’d never be at the urinals, and then I was there anyway. I can’t stand it, I don’t want to die, time keeps passing.”
Ardmore laughed and laughed, never having seen Conrad so animated. They realized they weren’t going to be able to finish even the first bottle and headed back to the dance. Linda met Conrad in the hall.
“Wherehave you been? You stood me up!” It was past midnight, and people were slow-dancing inside. Conrad was eager to share his new wisdom.
“Linda, oh, tennis Linda, with your pretty new dress. Only the present matters, did you ever think of that?” Conrad fumbled out a cigarette and lit it. An ashtray caught his attention. “Look at that ashtray, Linda. It exists. It doesn’t need us to exist. It resists our will and insists on disk-hood!” Conrad picked up the flat glass ashtray and emptied the butts onto the floor. “Holiday snow! Cuban missile crisis!”
“Conrad, if you ever want to go out with me again . . .”
“But I don’t!” brayed Conrad, realizing somewhere inside himself that this was true. “I don’t want to go out with you anymore, Linda, because you don’t understand death.”
A few onlookers had gathered. For the first time in Conrad’s life, people were looking at him with interest. He’d been a weenie long enough. Get drunk and talk about philosophy! That was the ticket! He groped for a concept.
“God is dead!” he shouted, suddenly understanding the dry phrase. “All is permitted!” With a whoop of laughter, Conrad threw the ashtray into the air and watched it shatter on the marble floor.
Next came a darkness, voices, and rough motion.
“Take it easy, Bunger, you’ve got puke all over yourself. Is this your house?”
“Yeah, that’s his house. Park his car, ring the doorbell, and let’s get out of here. Be sure to get that other bottle of wine.”
The dark forms disappeared, the house door opened, and there was Conrad’s father in his bathrobe.
“Shouldn’t wait up for me,” muttered Conrad. “Lea’ me alone, you old bastard.”
There was yelling. His parents put him to bed, he threw up again, lights and more yelling, his mother screaming,“Pig! Pig!”
Finally he was alone. The bed and room began to spin. Conrad fumbled for a way to stop it. There had to be some head-trick, some change of perspective to make the torture stop . . . there. He felt himself grow lighter and less real. Dropping off to sleep, he had the feeling he was floating one inch above his bed. And then . . . he was in the throes of an old, recurrent dream.
The structure is circular, high in the middle. It could be a circus big top. Conrad is off to one side, watching the thin, bright shapes that move above the center. They are flames, these beings; they are rods of light. The whole enclosed space is filled with moving lights, and they have reached some wonderful, awful conclusion about Conrad’s future. . . .
“No driving,” warned Conrad’s mother. “After last night, you can just stay in the neighborhood.”
“OK, Mom.” Conrad’s dog Nina followed him over to Hank’s house. Hank was in his room, reading a science-fiction book and listening to one of his radios. Hank’s big hobby was electronics—over the years he’d assembled four or five different types of radio transmitters and receivers. He even had a ham license from the FCC.
“The Magnificent Paunch,” intoned Hank by way of greeting. Friends for years now, the two had a large number of code phrases, many of uncertain meaning.
“High guineaus, Si,” responded Conrad. “I don’t feel too peak.”
“Got y’self all drunked up, did you, Zeke? Got a touch of that riiind fever?”
“It was great,” said Conrad, breaking into normal speech. “Ardmore and I stole wine from the church and got really plastered. I was talking about time and death and some guys drove me home.”
“I bet you got caught bigger’n shit.”
“Yeah. They were both waiting up. I don’t remember too clearly. I think maybe my old man slugged me. I was cursing and everything.”
“What’d they say today?”
“Well, nothing, really. But what about you? What happened on your big date with Lehman? Did you finger her again?”
Hank closed his book and stood up. He was tall and blond, and his girlfriend Laura Lehman was crazy about him. Instead of answering Conrad’s question directly, Hank nodded his head warningly toward the hall. “Let’s roll out.”
“OK. Let’s walk over to Skelton’s pasture. Nina’s here too.”
It was a cool, gray day. The frozen grass crunched underfoot. Hank’s family lived in a subdivision which petered out in a series of large cow pastures. The land all belonged to an old Kentucky gentleman named Cornelius Skelton. In the mid-fifties, Skelton had gotten into the papers for claiming he’d seen a UFO land in his fields. Skelton said it had butchered one of his hogs, and he had a mineral crystal that the saucer was supposed to have left. He wasn’t fanatical about it, or anything—he just insisted that he’d seen a UFO. He was a pleasant, courtly man, and most people ascribed this one eccentricity to his grief over the premature death of his wife.
Conrad had been wandering the pastures ever since the Bungers moved to Louisville in 1956. It was his favorite place. Today, Hank and Conrad were walking along a small stream that ran through the pasture bottoms. You could see bubbles moving beneath the clear patches in the ice.
“Did youfuck her?” Conrad asked finally.
Hank seemed reluctant to discuss it—like a rich man embarrassed to describe his treasures to a hungry beggar.
“Did you do it in your car?” demanded Conrad.
“No, uh, her mother was out. We used Laura’s room.”
“Jesus. Did she take off all her clothes?”
“You planning to beat off on this, Paunch?”
“Come on, Hank, I have to know. What does it feel like? Do they like it, too?”
“I felt tingly all over,” said Hank slowly. “It was like pins and needles in all of my skin, and I was dizzy. The first time was real fast, but the next one took longer. She was crying some of the time, but squeezing me real tight. I would have done it a third time, but I only had two rubbers. Just when I was leaving, her old lady came home. ‘Was it nice at the dance, children?’ ”
They walked on in silence for a while, following the stream. Nina ran ahead, sniffing for rabbits. At the crests of the hills on either side you could see houses, new split-levels like the one Hank lived in. A crow flapped slowly to the top of a leafless black locust tree and perched there, cawing. Conrad couldn’t get over the fact that his best friend Hank had actually managed to get laid.
“You really did it, Hank! That’s wonderful. Congratulations.” They paused to shake hands solemnly. “You know what I was thinking last month—” Conrad continued, “about the only wayI’m likely to ever get any pussy? I was thinking that when we have World War Three, there’ll be a whole lot of dead women around, you know, good-looking dead women with their clothes all ripped, and . . .”
“Oh, come on, Conrad. You won’t be a dry stick forever.” Hank poked Conrad and sang an altered bar fromMy Fair Lady : “With a little bit of luck, we’ll all fu-huh-uck!”
“Yeah, I guess so, sooner or later. Today’s the first day of 1963. I can remember when I was about ten, reading an article inPopular Science about all the neat inventions we were supposed to have in 1963. Personal helicopters, self-driving cars. Time keeps passing, Hank, and before we know it, we’ll be dead. That’s what I was telling everyone last night. We’re all really going to die.”
“So what, as long as you have some fun first.”
“You don’t understand.”
“You’re just worried you’ll die avirrgin .” Hank had a special, nasal voice he used for unkind cuts like this. “The SacredVirrrgin Mary.”
“Sure, religion’s bullshit,” said Conrad, steering back to his chosen topic. “Heaven and hell are just science fiction. But can there really benothing after death? I mean a corpse is the same matter as the living person was. Where does the life go to? Where did it come from?”
“Ghosts,” said Hank. “The soul.” In the distance, Nina was barking.
“That’s right,” said Conrad, “Iknow I have a soul. I’m alive, I can feel it. But where does itgo ?”
They were near the end of the pastures now, and Nina was running back toward them. The two boys squatted to wait for her, squatted and watched the bubbles beneath the ice, ice patterned in ridges and blobs, clear here and frosty there. Toward one bank, the ice domed up. A lone, large bubble wobbled there, braced against the flow. Smaller bubbles kept arriving to merge into that big bubble, and it, in turn, kept growing and sending out tendrils, silver pseudopods that pinched off into new bubbles that were swept further downstream.
Nina came panting up, pink tongue exposed. Her breath steamed in the cold air. “Good dog,” said Hank, patting her. “Hey, Conrad, let’s go back. Lehman’s mother’s giving an open house today. Maybe your parents will let you come.”
“Wait,” said Conrad, struck by a sudden inspiration. “Thelife-force . Each of us has a tiny piece of the life-force, and when we die it goes away.”
“Hubba-hubba, Zeke, I done lost my life-force up Laura’s crack.”
“No, listen, I know where the life-force goes, Hank. I’ve got it figured out. There’s a big pool of life-force . . . out there.” Conrad gestured vaguely. “It’s like that big bubble under the ice, you see. And each of us is a little bubble that can merge back in.”
“Like a soul going to heaven.” They were walking now, headed back toward the houses.
“And the big thing is that once a little bubble joins the big one, the little bubble isgone . The soul goes to heaven,and then it’s absorbed into God . The drop of life-force slides into the big pool. Isn’t that neat, Hank? Your life-force is preserved, but your personality disappears! I’ve invented a new philosophy!”
Still riding high from his big first fuck, Hank felt no need to burst his friend’s bubble. “It’d be cool to major in philosophy next year. Find out all the answers and then become a Bowery bum.”
“God, yeah.” Conrad felt elated. “Do you think we’ll be able to get beer over at Lehman’s?”
“Sure. Her old lady don’t give a shit. She’ll be plowed anyway.”
On the way back, Conrad began jumping back and forth over the frozen stream. With his big new idea in mind, he felt light as a feather. The floating feeling from bed last night came back . . . he’d never jumped so far so easily before.
“Look, Hank, I can fly!” As Conrad said it, the feeling disappeared. He landed heavily on the stream bank, and one foot crashed through the ice.
“You’ll fly better once we get into Lehman’s brew.”
But Hank’s mother waylaid them before they could make off with the Larsen family car. She was a pleasantly plump redhead with a gentle voice. Conrad had an unsettling feeling that she knew exactly what both he and Hank had done last night.
“Conrad, your mother called. Your father would like for you to come home right away. And, Hank, why don’t you leave the poor Lehmans alone for one day? Weren’t you supposed to rotate the Valiant’s tires this afternoon?”
“Goodbye, Conrad. And Happy New Year!”
Hank and Conrad exchanged shrugs. Hank was led into his house, and Conrad started back home. His father was waiting in their gravel driveway.
Mr. Caldwell Bunger, Sr., had moved his family to Louisville when Conrad turned ten. He’d gotten two acres of land cheap from Cornelius Skelton, and he’d built a white split-level, a comfortable house set well back from the road. He’d never gotten around to putting blacktop on the long driveway.
Approaching his father, Conrad’s mind wandered.Gravel driveway . When Hank and Conrad were twelve, they’d had a special game with the gravel. They’d get a shovelful of it, douse it with gasoline, light it, and then throw the burning sand and rocks up into the air. It looked like people made of fire, sort of, and . . .
“Feel pretty silly?” Conrad’s father was a solid-looking man with bifocals, and with gold in his teeth. He was wearing his clerical collar.
“I’m sorry about last night,” mumbled Conrad. He’d managed to avoid his father so far today.
“You’re making a name for yourself, boy. People remember these things. What am I going to tell Holman Barkley when I see him downtown?I’m sorry my son threw up on your daughter? ”
“I didn’t . . .” Conrad broke off in horror as the memory swept back. Hehad thrown up on Linda. On her legs. She’d phoned up her father for help. Ardmore and two other guys had driven Conrad home and . . .
“Have you apologized to your mother?”
“Uh, sure, yeah.”
“Conrad, what’s the matter with you? Up until just a few months ago we were so proud of you. And now your grades are slipping; every time you get a chance you go out and get your snoot full; you say you’re sick of church . . . what’s the problem, Conrad? What is it?” His father seemed genuinely baffled.
“Well, Pop, I’m worried about death. If humans have to die anyway, then everything’s meaningless, isn’t it?”
“So that’s it now,” sighed Mr. Bunger. “I’ll tell you one thing, boy, if you’re worried about death, you shouldn’t be drinking and driving. Otherwise your life will be over before you know what hit you.”
“Some other guys drove me back last night. And it doesn’t really matter how long I live anyway. Sooner or later it comes to the same thing: nothing.”
“What if I’d felt that way?” said Mr. Bunger, his voice rising. “Look at this house, look at you and your brother. If I’d chickened out young, you wouldn’t be here!”
“So I’m supposed to get a job and buy a house and have kids and be just like you? I don’t see the point of it, Pop. What’s the difference, really, if there’s one more or one less nice middle-class family?” Conrad meant all this, though at the same time he was conscious of adopting a pose. The main thing was to get the better of his father—his father who was always so right and so patient. “I hope the Russians bomb us tomorrow and blow all this bullshit away.”
That did it. “I ought to paste you one!” shouted Mr. Bunger. “Go inside and do that homework you’ve been putting off all vacation.Take , that’s all you know,take, take, take , and if it’s not enough, tear everything down. I’ll give you the meaning of life—you’re not using Mom’s car again till you pull your grades back up. School starts again tomorrow, thank God.”
“You’re just scared to face death,” sneered Conrad. “That’s the only reason you can believe all that religion crap.”
He took off running before his father could react. He made it to his room and slammed the door.The old people are scared , thought Conrad fiercely,but I’m not. I’m not scared to look for the real answers. That’s what I’m here for—to figure out the secret of life.
According to the hearty priest who taught the religion class, when the bread and wine are blessed at Mass, they turn into literal, actual flesh and blood. Some of the other boys told Conrad it had to be true, since they’d heard of a kid who’d stolen a consecrated Communion wafer and stuck pins in it . . . and the wafer hadbled .
“Can you taste the blood when you chew it?” Conrad demanded.
“You’re not allowed to chew.”
Even more bizarre than the religion classes were the monthly sex lectures that the seniors got. Normally the boys were split into ten different tracks, but for the sex lectures, all four hundred seniors would be herded into the gym together. They’d sit up in the bleachers, and a priest named Father Stook would hold forth like some crazed dictator. Father Stook’s chief interests were rubbers and jacking off.
“I’ve had mothers come to me, boys, come to me in tears because they found one of those things in their son’s wallet. Don’t break your mother’s heart! The use of contraceptives is but one step better than the mortal sin of self-abuse.Self-abuse destroys the mind! I knew one poor man, boys, a deranged syphilitic. I was at his bedside when he passed away. And do you know what that pitiful wretch was doing as he died? Do youknow ?He was reaching down to abuse himself! What a way to meet your Maker, boys.In the very act of committing the vilest perversion! Now, I know that some of you may have heard that certain acts between men and women are perversions. Not so. As long asthe penis ejaculates inside the vagina , no sin against God has been committed. What you and your wife dobefore ejaculation is strictly your own affair, as long asthe seed is planted in the womb . Oh, I’ve heard it’s a marvelous thing. I’ve read that when the woman reaches a certain state of arousal, there arecontractions within the walls of her vagina . A kind of suction is created. One member of my parish told me, ‘Father Stook, if the good Lord made anything better, He kept it for Himself.’ There is no inherent evil in sex, boys; sex is God’s gift to man.Perversion arises only when the seed isturned aside . Now, I tell my mothers to be on the lookout for contraceptives in their sons’ rooms. And I’ve heard that some of you fellows are too smart for that. Oh, I know all the tricks. Yes, there was one boy who kept his prophylacticstaped to the inside of his car’s rear hubcap . I said Mass at his funeral last February. For one snowy night, he was out there in the street, with a tire iron in his hand, and his pants around his ankles, and . . .”
On the first Monday after Christmas vacation, Conrad had to hand in a theme for English class. The assignment had been to write a fantastic story of some type. Conrad had chosen to write a science-fiction story satirizing the Roman Catholic Church.
The idea in the story was that an alien energy-creature comes to Earth and takes on human form, so as better to understand mankind’s peculiar ways of thought. He has superpowers, of course, and starts out by practicing his power of flight in a deserted pasture. As chance would have it, a group of nuns shows up for a cookout, just as the alien is hovering ten feet above the ground. Most of the nuns think the alien must be a new Messiah, the Second Coming of Christ. But one of the nuns claims the alien is the Antichrist, and before anyone can stop her, she chokes him to death with her rosary. The other nuns decide to cover up their sister’s crime by barbecuing the body. It tastes wonderful! “Truly,” says one chomping nun, “this is the flesh of God.”
The English teacher was a spiritual, literary man named Brother Marion. He glanced up from Conrad’s story with such a look of sorrow that all Conrad could think to do was to kick the boy sitting next to him, an effeminate school friend named Pete Jeans. Jeans howled, and Brother Marion reached into the pocket of his black robe.
“Yes, Conrad, I will write you a Jug ticket.” A Jug ticket was a small yellow square of paper. It meant that you had to stay after school for an hour.
After class Brother Marion drew Conrad aside. “I’m disappointed by your story, Conrad. Surely you can find more deserving targets than the Church.”
“But . . . how can you believe all those crazy things? How can you believe in Transubstantiation? A wafer is a wafer, not the flesh of Christ!”
“God became flesh, why should flesh not become bread? Although theaccidental properties of the consecrated wafer are as bread, itsessence is Christ’s flesh. Theaccidental properties of Christ’s body were human, yet His body’sessence was divine.” Brother Marion’s hollow eyes glinted briefly. “You should read Aquinas, not blaspheme like a fool.”
The brother in charge of Jug was a lean zealot with angry red acne scars on his face. Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross. Nobody messed with Saint-John-of-the-Cross. You sat there and wrote for an hour, and then Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross threw your essay away and you could go home. The topic of the essay was always the same:Why I Am in Jug.
Taking his pen in hand, Conrad felt a strange surge of power.Nobody would read this. He could write whatever he wanted to. It was something Conrad had never thought of doing before—sit at a desk and write whatever you’re thinking.
“Stop grinning, Bunger, and get to work. Two sides.Why I Am in Jug .”
Conrad began with the stupid way that Jeans always stuck his lower jaw out to look like he was thinking, and then moved right into some confused vaporing about how misunderstood he, Conrad Bunger, really was.Half a page. Conrad recounted one of Father Stook’s recent tales, the one about the man who’d injured the side of his penis with his electric drill, and who’d then come to Father Stook for permission to wear a condom during intercourse so that the raw spot wouldn’t chafe. “All right,” Father Stook had said, “but you have to puncture the tip.”A page and a quarter. Conrad explained about death, and how the secret of life is that we each possess a fragment of the universal life-force.A page and two-thirds. He ended by making fun of a St. X administrator called Deforio. Deforio was in charge of issuing late-slips. “Sports fan Deforio’s moronic robot scrawl.” Here and there a few gaps remained. Conrad filled them in with random curse words. He felt like if he willed it, he could float right up to the ceiling.
“I’m all done, Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross. Can I go home now?”
The next morning, as he was walking down the hall to his third period mathematics class, Conrad was suddenly struck from behind. Something clamped on to the soft tendons of his neck and dragged him into an empty classroom. It was Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross.
“Whaddo you mean writing that kind of garbage? You think you’re smarter than the teachers?”Shake. “I don’t want to read about no antics with the Elks.”Shake. “I want you back in Jug every day this week.”
Conrad had once seen Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross punch a student, a football player, in the jaw. Quivering with fear, he crept off to math class. But as soon as he sat down, the wall speaker crackled into life.
“Brother Albert? Could you please send Conrad Bunger to the Assistant Principal’s office?”
The other boys looked at Conrad as he left the silent room. Some smiled, some gloated, some simply looked upset.Next time it could be me. Berkowitz, the class clown, squeaked, “Help!” from the back row.
The Assistant Principal was a wise-eyed man with big shoulders and a trim gray crew cut. His name was Brother Hershey. If Saint-John-of-the-Cross was a hard cop, Hershey was a soft cop. He had a Boston accent and an air of pained rationality.
“Come in, Conrad. Sit down.” Hershey slumped back in his chair and sighed. Conrad’s Jug essay was lying on his desk. “Some of the brothers are very unhappy with you.”
“And Brother Marion.And Brother Albert. A change has come over you, Conrad. Are you having personal problems?”
“Well . . . it’s about death. Life is meaningless. I can’t see any reason for any of it.” Hershey started to interrupt, but Conrad pressed on. “I’ve been reading books about it.Nausea , andOn the Road . I’m not just making it up. Any action is equally meaningless. The present moment is all that matters.”
“I’ve heard of those books,” Hershey said shortly. “Do you think it’s your place to ride the brothers about religion?”
“You say that the moment is all that matters, Conrad. Has this attitude led you into . . . sins of impurity?”
“Uh, no, sir. No.”
“You’re not a mule, Conrad. I can reason with you, can I not?”
“Yes.” Conrad knew what Brother Hershey was hinting at. If you really acted up, Hershey would take you out to the gym and paddle you. A lower-track boy had told Conrad about it at lunch one day.“He carries that paddle hid under his robe. All the way out to the gym you can hear it bangin’ on his goddamn leg.”
“Because I would rather not have to treat a good student like a mule.”
“You can reason with me, Brother Hershey. I understand. I’ll act better. I can hold out till graduation.”
“Fine.” Hershey picked up the Jug essay, scanned one side, and then the other. “You misspelled Mr. Delfioro’s name.”
Conrad sat tight. Finally, Hershey crumpled up the essay and threw it in the trash can. He leaned back in his chair and sighed again. “Conrad . . . can I speak frankly?”
“Sure.” How long was this going to go on?
“I had doubts, too, when I was your age. We all have doubts; God never meant for life to be easy.”
“How do you know there’s a God?” blurted Conrad. The pressure of all the things he wanted to say was like a balloon in his chest. “I mean, sure, the life-force exists, but why should there be a God who’s watching us? It’s wrong to try and explain everything with an invisible God and a life after death. Life should make sense right here and now!”
Brother Hershey leaned forward and studied the calendar on his desk. When he spoke again there was an edge to his voice. “There are six months and ten days until graduation, Conrad. Discipline yourself. Pretend to believe, and belief may come to you. I don’t want to see you in here another time.”
“OK.” Conrad thought again of the paddle.
“When you go back to class, your buddies are going to ask you what happened.”
“Tell them it’s none of their business.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, Brother Hershey.”
By the time school let out it was raining hard. Conrad got his books and ran out to wait for his bus. A little ninth-grader was talking about how it would snow most likely and all the teachers would be in a bus and have an accident and then there wouldn’t be school for a few weeks while they got all the teachers buried. There were about fifteen boys waiting for the bus and saying when’s that son of a bitch gonna get here anyway, hell, we probably won’t get out of this place till six. But then the bus pulled up anyway and they all ran through the rain and Conrad stepped in a puddle on purpose, and all the other bus guys were hurrying to get good seats. Conrad sat in back by himself, he felt so cut off and who gave a damn listening to the bus guys all excited about parties or cigarettes or getting drunk. He felt like a cold hand was grabbing his guts and squeezing them. The bus started moving and all the bus guys were shouting, not out of joy, but to get everyone to look at them, but nobody really noticed each other, except some of the guys who were really bugged about not making the scene were laughing at all the right times. Then the bus was really going, and Conrad was sitting at the window looking at the road all black shiny wet and being amazed at how humans move by going past stationary objects and not hitting anything. He was hungry as hell because of no lunch. He felt like vomiting, but instead he spat on a bunch of little white worms which lived in a crack in the floor. Looking out the window again, he saw a great big oak tree dripping unbelievable drops into a puddle and blurping up giant bubbles that looked like jellyfish until they popped, but the whole time all the guys in the bus were shouting. The guy in front of Conrad had picked a scab off his face and was dabbing at the blood with a piece of paper, and the guy he was talking to didn’t even notice it, and Conrad was the only one who saw it except for a little kid across the aisle, and when Conrad stared at his eyes he wouldn’t look back, and acted like he saw something outside the window, and when Conrad looked out he saw that the gutters were overflowing and there were big brown triangle puddles on the road.
Conrad felt dazed and confused. This was the first time he’d been allowed to go out in three weeks. An outing of the church youth group, on their way to an all-state Episcopal youth jamboree. The girls had been singing for eighty miles, singing with hysterical good cheer. The only other guy was named Chuck Sands. He read the Bible, had pimples and greasy hair. Strong, jolly Jeannie—a woman who often helped with youth group activities—was driving this van, and Conrad’s father was driving another. What a nightmare.
They piled out of the van in front of a family restaurant in some tiny Kentucky town. The girls rushed ahead and got a table by the window. There were four of them. Butt-faced Patsie Wilson; a distant, chain-smoking girl called Dee Decca; and two “hot” gigglers named Sue Pohlboggen and Randy Kitsler.
“Come on, Bunger,” urged Chuck Sands. They were still out by the van. Inside the bright window’s yellow space, Sue Pohlboggen was fluffing her blonde curls, and Dee Decca was lighting a Newport. Patsie was whispering secrets to Randy. Jeannie was in the ladies’ room.
“I need air, Sands. I’ll just get something at a supermarket and eat outside, OK?”
“Fine,” said Sands. “That gives me more room to maneuver.”
Conrad hurried around the corner and walked a few blocks. Seed store, drugstore, dentist, bank. It felt good to be alone, in the middle of nowhere, free from the relentless pressure to conform. He flared his nostrils and breathed in alienation. This was a time to be thinking deep thoughts.
What is it all about?he asked himself.Why is all of this here? How can human beings be so blind? The girls primping their hair and waiting for food. Didn’t they see the nothingness which underlies everything?
For the last few months, Conrad had had a strange feeling of having just woken up. His early childhood . . . he could barely remember anything about it. Later, as an adolescent, he’d simply taken things as they’d come, the good with the bad, no questions asked. But now . . . he was cut off, awkward and posturing, aself in a world of strangers. And what lay ahead? A meaningless struggle ending with a meaningless death. How could anyone take rules seriously? His parents, the brothers at school, the cool party-boys and the horny youth-group kids . . . how could they act like they knew the answers?
Conrad tripped on a crack in the sidewalk just then. Something strange happened as he fell. Some special part of his brain cut in, and instead of falling, he . . . hung there, tilted forward, in defiance of natural law.
The instant the miracle dawned on Conrad, it was over. He fell the rest of the way forward and landed heavily on the cracked cement. For a full minute, he lay there, trying to bring back the state of mind that had let him float. He’d had the feeling before . . . on New Year’s Day in the pasture with Hank. And he often flew in dreams. But now the feeling was gone, and Conrad didn’t know how to bring it back. Maybe he’d just made the whole thing up. Maybe he was going nuts.
He got to his feet and walked around the corner. There was a lit-up supermarket. He drifted in. Muzak washed up and down the empty aisles; the fluorescent lights oozed their jerky glow.Someday I’ll be buying food for my children , thought Conrad;someday I’ll be dead. He found a package of bologna and a small bunch of bananas. Thiscar trip will never end; I’ll be in high school for the rest of my life.
“He had the strangest supper I’ve ever seen,” Conrad could hear Jeannie telling his father next morning. “He just bought lunchmeat and ate it out in the street.”
Dee Decca sat next to Conrad at breakfast. She was impressed by Conrad’s bid for freedom. “Where are you going to college next year?” she asked him.
“I don’t know yet,” said Conrad. This Dee Decca had short dark hair and a reasonably pretty face, though there was something odd-looking about her body. “Harvard already turned me down and I haven’t heard from Swarthmore. Georgetown is my ace in the hole. They’re dying to have me because I go to a Catholic high school.” He paused to light one of Dee’s cigarettes. “I sort of wish they’d all turn me down. Then I could go off and bum around.”
“I want to go to San Jose State in California,” said Dee. “I want to join a big sorority and go to a lot of parties. I missed the boat in high school.”
“A frat house with an ever-present keg of beer,” mused Conrad. “Surfing. That sounds cool.”
“Listen up now,” yelled leather-lunged Jeannie. “It’s time to divide into our discussion groups. We’re going to share our feelings about the liturgy.”
“What’s that mean?” whispered Dee. She had a husky, sophisticated voice.
“Let’s sneak off,” answered Conrad. “I’ll meet you outside by the pavilion.”
The Kentucky State Episcopal Conference Center was a collection of buildings something like a summer camp. Two groups of cabins, a dining hall, an administration building, and a large outdoor pavilion. The buildings were perched at the top of a long empty hill that bulged down to a forlorn brown river. It was almost spring. The ground was wet but not muddy. The pale sun was like a chalk mark on the cloudy sky.
Conrad took Dee’s hand; she let him. They walked downhill, lacing their fingers. Her face was creamy white, with two brown moles. Her mouth had an interesting double-bowed curve to it.
“Question,” Dee said after a while, saying it as if she were in a college seminar.
“Where are we going?”
“To make out?” As Conrad said this, he released Dee’s hand and put his arm around her waist. They were over the brow of the hill now, and the buildings were nowhere in sight.
“I hope you don’t have W-H-D.”
“Wandering Hands Disease.”
“Oh. That’s . . .”too stupid of you to even talk about , Conrad wanted to say. On the other hand, it could be a come-on, couldn’t it, that she would bring uppetting right off the bat? He steered them into a grove of trees and slid his hand up from her waist and toward her bra strap.
“Stop that, Conrad.” She planted her feet and turned up her face. He kissed her. She pushed her tongue in his mouth. She tasted like tobacco. He pushed his tongue back. Her mouth was cool inside. The taste of her spit. Her smell.
They were hugging, hugging and French kissing, not wanting to stop, afraid they wouldn’t know how to start again.
“CONRAD!!!”The voice was rough and distant.
“Don’t worry, Dee, that’s just my father. They won’t come all the way down here. They’ll give up in a minute.”
They kissed some more. Conrad didn’t bother trying for her tits again. This was plenty.
As Conrad had predicted, the grown-ups gave up on them. He and Dee made their way down to the river and walked along the bank. Apparently the river flooded frequently, for the shore was littered with sticks. There were big sycamore trees. In one spot the river had eaten a great dirt cave into the hillside. Conrad and Dee sat on a rock in there and talked.
“Did you have a happy childhood, Conrad?”
“I guess so. I can hardly remember anything about it. My mother used to give me hay-fever pills. The first thing I remember really clearly is my tenth birthday. It was the day my family moved to Louisville. My brother and I saw a flying wing.”
“A plane that was just a wing. Anyway, I was happy for a while, but recently . . . It’s like you said before.I missed the boat in high school. I’m not cool, and I don’t know what anything means. I’ll be glad to go off to college. Everything here seems so stupid and unreal.”
“I’m not unreal.” Dee gave Conrad a little nudge. “And not everyone is stupid.” She paused, then glanced over. “I’m quite intelligent, you know.”
“Well, fine. I used to date a girl who couldn’t understand anything. Have you heard of existentialism?”
“Yes. Existence precedes essence. You are what you do.”
“That’s good,” exclaimed Conrad, a little surprised. He’d never heard it summed up so simply. “And nothingness is behind everything.”
“I wrote a term paper on existentialism.”
“Did you readNausea ?”
“Yes. You have too?”
“It’s my favorite. The part where he’s in a park looking at the roots of a chestnut tree, and thepersistence of matter begins to disgust him . . . ugh!” Conrad looked at a nearby tree, trying to summon up Roquentin’s nausea.
“This river,” said Dee slowly, “it’s been here for hundreds of years. It’ll be here for hundreds more.”
“We could live in this cave,” observed Conrad. “Build fires and catch fish.”
“Not in the winter.”
“Do you believe in God, Dee?”
“I . . . I don’t think so. Not really. Not like in church, anyway. Maybe the universe is God?”
“That’s called pantheism. Everything fits together into a whole, and that Whole is God.”
“That’s like my own theory.” Conrad explained about death and the life-force.
“Are you always so deep, Conrad?” She was smiling into his eyes. He’d caught her fancy.
“I . . . I think I’m different from other people. I think maybe I can . . .”
“I think I might be able to levitate. You know? Fly.”
Conrad strained, and rose up maybe an inch from the rock they were sitting on. But he fell back right away, and then it wouldn’t work at all.
“You just stood up a little,” laughed Dee. “You’re wild, Conrad.” She paused and gave him a pert look. “You know what I thought you were going to say at first? When you said you’re different from other people?”
Dee’s voice grew flat with tension. “I thought you were going to tell me that you . . .masturbate .”
“Uh . . . well, I do, as a matter of fact.”
“So do I. Most girls do.”
“I do it every night.”
This was incredible. “So do I, nearly. We call it ‘beating off.’ I found out about it when I was twelve. I’d be lying in bed, and for some reason I’d start thinking about naked women with big breasts. A whole stream of them—each woman would march into my room, smile, and march out. One after the other. And my bee would get real hard and I’d rub it.”
“We called it a bee. What did your family call your . . . your . . .”
“We called it the cushy. I used to rub my cushy way before I was twelve. I did it even when I was real little. I used to think of it as ‘my bestest spot.’ ” They both giggled wildly.
This was just incredible. Conrad grabbed Dee and pushed his tongue deep into her mouth. He took one of her hands and pressed it in his crotch to feel his boner. She drew her hand back, but she kept kissing him. They kissed for so long that Conrad came in his pants. Dee noticed the stain.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“I like you, Dee. All trillion of my sperms like you.”
They joined the others for lunch. For the whole lunch, Conrad was on a cloud. Dee knew he had a dick, and she’d seen him come. Maybe he wasn’t going to have to wait for nuclear war after all.
When Conrad got back to Louisville and told Hank about his new girl, Hank made fun of him.
“Decca? That phony? And you didn’t even get tit off her?”
“Look, Hank, I made out with her for a long time. I even came in my pants. And she’s readNausea .”
“Bo-way. I heard the cops caught her naked with Billy Ballhouse in a car last fall.”
“Oh, shut up. Do you know what pantheism is?”
“Sure. It’s a bunch of dumb shits kneeling in front of a rock.” Hank began laughing uncontrollably, and offeringsalaams to his radio. “O voice from sky, please speak me heap truth.”
Conrad waited for his friend’s laughter to die down. “What if I told you I could fly, Hank?”
“Is this one of yourTwilight Zone stories? Remember the one you made up about coming from a flying saucer?” Hank’s mood of mockery had passed. “I’m all ears, Conrad. For my money, you’re a fucking genius.”
“It only lasted a second. It was on the way down to the conference center—we all stopped for food, and I was walking to the supermarket. I tripped on the sidewalk, and instead of falling, I just hung there. Maybe I’m some kind of mutant, Hank.”
“Did you tell Decca?”
“I mentioned it. She was excited, but she didn’t believe me.”
“That’s just as well. You know, if you really did turn out to have any superpowers, Conrad, it wouldn’t be a good idea to tell everyone. People hate mutants.” Hank was laughing again. “Gunjy mue.”
“We’ve got Falstaff, too,” said Jim Ardmore with his dark sly smirk. “Not to mention Mr. Leggett’s liquor cabinet.”
“You all stay out of the liquor,” cautioned Donny Leggett. “Somebody stole a bottle of peppermint schnapps last week, and my father was really . . .”
“That was Bunger on a rampage,” chortled Ardmore. “He came up here with his friend Hank Larsen and stole a bottle from your house. It’s the gospel truth. The good word.”
Conrad shrugged and opened his beer. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. It was Derby Day, and all the grown-ups were at the track. Conrad and a bunch of Chevalier guys were getting drunk together at Donny Leggett’s house, a hilltop estate with a swimming pool.
“This is only my third beer,” said Conrad. “And I already feel plowed. You know where I feel it first?”
“In the backs of yourthighs ,” groaned Ardmore. “You’ve told me that a dozen times, you wretched sot.”
“When I know I’m going to have a chance to get drunk, I get all twitchy, like a junkie, and then after the first drink, I’m so relaxed.” Conrad grinned. “This is great. I’m going swimming.” He chugged the rest of his beer, stripped down to his underwear, and dove into the Leggetts’ pool.
Some of the cooler Chevalier boys were there, too. Billy Ballhouse, Worth Wadsworth, and Custer Buckingham. They didn’t like the way Conrad was acting. It was ungentlemanly.
When Conrad lurched out of the pool and began trying to open his fourth Blatz, Ballhouse spoke up.
“Take it easy, Bunger. You’ve got all afternoon.”
“You want money for beer, Ballhouse? Maybe you should make a run. Where’s the beer opener?”
“I mean, Donny’s parents live here, Bunger. You can’t just throw up all over the place and act like a wino.”
“Eat shit, Billy. You’re a goddamn candy-ass. You don’t know about death.” Conrad walked over to where Ardmore and Leggett were sitting. He remembered having seen the beer opener there.
He put all his attention into getting two triangles punched into the top of his beer can. But then someone was shoving him. Ballhouse.
“You can’t talk to me that way, Bunger. Apologize.”
“Sure, Billy. I’m sorry you’re a dipshit.”
Ardmore howled with delight, and Leggett burst into giggles. Ballhouse shook his head and gave up.
“Come on,” he called to Wadsworth and Buckingham. “Let’s go pick up some stuff.”
“Would you get me a half-pint?” put in Conrad.
“I’m sorry, Conrad.” The contempt on Ballhouse’s face was profound. “Girls don’t come in half-pints.” Pause. “I’m surprised Dee would have anything to do with a drunk like you.”
There was a whole fridge of beer, and the three remaining boys spent the rest of the afternoon working on it. At some point the Derby was on TV. Watching it, Conrad realized he was seeing double. It was time to leave. He and Ardmore decided to go to Sue Pohlboggen’s house.
“Can you drive?” asked Ardmore.
“Sure, Jim. I used to race these things in South Korea.” Conrad revved the VW’s engine to a chattering scream.
There was a long gravel driveway leading downhill from the Leggetts’ house to River Road. It felt like a crunchy sliding board. So that he wouldn’t have to use the brakes, Conrad began slaloming, swooping back and forth from left to right, faster and . . . suddenly everything was wrong. The steering wheel jerked like a living thing, the wheels locked sideways, Ardmore was yelling and—
A sound that Conrad felt, rather than heard, a sound and a brief moment of frenzied motion. His power. Jerk-stop to blank. Black. The horn was blowing. The horn was stuck. He was in a barbed-wire fence and the car was wrapped around a black locust tree and Jim was lying still.
“Hey, Jim,” Conrad screamed. The horn wouldn’t stop. The bleat of that stuck horn was driving him nuts. “Jim, wake up!”
“Don’t get hysterical, Conrad.” Ardmore sat up and looked around. He hadn’t been thrown as far as Conrad had. “Let’s tear out the wires to the horn.”
They did that, and things got a little better. Some time passed. Conrad’s parents came, and they took him home. So that he wouldn’t have to face th